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Innovation economy

College presidents are leaders, but why not innovators?

People eat lunch on campus at MIT on Oct. 20, 2022.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

MIT named a new president in October: Sally Kornbluth, a molecular biologist who is provost at Duke University. In the months ahead, Harvard, Tufts, Boston University, and Emerson College will also hire new leaders.

They are all wonderful schools. You can tell by their price tags (average tuition, room, and board for four years: $315,000). The youngest of the group, Emerson, was founded in 1880, nearly a century-and-a-half back.

But these new leaders will largely be tasked with preserving greatness, not innovating. They are like the chief executives of Chanel or Rolex, burnishing brands that operate at the highest end of the higher ed market.


That’s probably pragmatic, but disappointing, too. I’d like to see Massachusetts emerge as a leader in new models for granting undergrad degrees at much lower prices. We also need to experiment with fresh thinking about how to improve graduation rates; even at schools like the five we’re talking about, just 68 percent of first-time undergrad students have graduated after six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Will that kind of radical change emanate from the campuses of MIT, Harvard, or Tufts? I doubt it, though some new concepts might leverage some of the online courses they’ve created, or even use the campuses of existing colleges during slower times of the year. Have you ever seen a college where 100 percent of the classrooms and labs are used seven days a week, year-round? I think we need more educational revolutionaries in our town — and more focus on what they’re trying to do, rather than the latest crop of college presidents.

“What’s weird is that higher ed is different from any other industry, in that there’s a bias toward never changing anything,” says Michael Larsson, president of Duet, a Boston nonprofit that grants associates and bachelor’s degrees in partnership with Southern New Hampshire University. “The older, the better. If you think about other sectors, no one would say, ‘We should keep our hospitals like they were in Oxford in 1500.’”


Graduates including, in center, from left, Giavanna Carolyn Mariano and Angela Valentino, applaud during the Emerson College commencement at Agganis Arena on May 8, 2022. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Duet, which celebrates its eighth birthday this year, is furthering the kind of innovation we need more of: It combines online courses offered by Southern New Hampshire University Online with in-person or virtual “coaching support” on enrollment, balancing life with school, and career planning. It offers a limited number of degrees in areas like health care management and communications. And the price for four years of education is less than $19,000 if a student is paying out of pocket; that drops to $260 if a student is eligible for Pell grants from the federal government. And Duet’s model offers students the ability to earn unlimited credits each term, so faster graduation is a possibility for students with sufficient free time. Instead of a sprawling green campus, Duet rents a small office downtown that students can use for study space or in-person coaching sessions.

A paper published last fall by Harvard’s Kennedy School found that Duet’s approach, based on its first 554 students to enroll, “achieved graduation rates more than twice the Massachusetts state average” and “eliminated race-based college completion disparities.” (That study looked at students pursuing associate’s degrees, not bachelor’s.)

Chris Gabrieli, cofounder of the nonprofit Transforming Education and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, notes that UMass last year acquired Brandman University, a private school with campuses in California and Washington. That, he says, may prove a “bold move” in helping more adult learners earn degrees from an associate’s up through a doctorate, with a mix of online and in-person class options. Gabrieli says it leverages the UMass brand and has potential similar to Manchester, N.H.-based SNHU Online to reach tens of thousands of students worldwide. (SNHU says it serves more than 135,000 online students at any given time. Compare that scale with the 5,900 students at Emerson.)


What other “blank sheet of paper” ideas might we try? What about leveraging empty office space in downtown areas for classes or rotating students through a traditional campus environment in one- or two-month on-campus stints — what educators call a “low residency” model — to get the best of online, blended with the upside of in-person, team-based projects and classroom discussions. Larsson at Duet suggests starting small colleges that are very focused: perhaps everyone gets a double major in business and English, and “all academics, operations, residential, and career supports” would be aligned around that. “Even the clubs could be limited in scope but really amazing — like the largest, most hard-core intramural basketball league, and a tremendous theater program.”

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University in Springfield, says that new approaches to higher ed might “reach down into the high schools, and create models where students are taking college courses earlier,” as a path toward earning degrees in fewer than four years.


“You need to do selective innovation, experimentation, and entrepreneurship, not bound by all the traditions of how an institution has done things over the last hundred years,” Johnson says. But when I brought up innovating an approach to employing professors that deals with some of the challenges of underpaid adjunct lecturers and the tenure system, though, Johnson’s lighthearted response was: “You can write that Robert Johnson had nothing to say about tenure.”

The Harvard campus in Cambridge, Mass, on March 15, 2022. KAYANA SZYMCZAK/NYT

Michael Horn, co-author of the book “Disrupting Class” and a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, says there is enormous potential in combining various forms of learning modes with on-the-job apprenticeships. He cites models like the Quantic School of Business, a “mobile-first” executive MBA, and the Minerva Project, a San Francisco startup focused on new kinds of online learning, as well as ways that employers such as Amazon Web Services and Walmart have created training programs for in-demand workers. “You might try models where you’re learning for three years, and for one year you’re getting credit for an apprenticeship,” says Horn, or companies that would hire people full-time while they continue their learning.

As one example, he cites Reach University, part of Oxford Teachers College, where “you’re getting credit, and working in a classroom as you’re earning your degree.” (Reach says the average student pays $900 a year as they work toward a bachelor’s degree, accruing no student debt.)

“We don’t create enough new entrants in higher ed who can rethink the model,” Horn says. “I wonder if we can change the conversation here, and make it not just about the crown jewels of Massachusetts,” but more about making degrees more accessible to a broad range of students.


One space to watch: Last year, Harvard and MIT sold edX, the online learning platform they’d built, to a publicly traded education tech company, 2U, netting $800 million in the deal. At least some of that money will go to a new nonprofit called The Center for Reimagining Learning. The center hasn’t said much yet about its mission or activities other than that it is “focused on closing the learning and opportunity gap.”

Over 400 years, Massachusetts has been great at creating the luxury brands of higher ed. The new presidents at MIT, Harvard, Tufts, and the rest will work hard to sustain them. But what if we also tried to create the Target or Trader Joe’s of education — offering good quality at lower prices?

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him @ScottKirsner.